It was February. While most players around the NFL were letting their bodies heal after a grueling season, Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews was ready to get back to work.
“It was kind of like, ‘Hey, Clay, take some time off,’” Ryan Capretta, who runs the renowned Capretta’s Proactive Sports Performance training facility in Thousand Oaks, Calif., said in the Cover Story of the December issue of Packer Report Magazine. “But he wanted to get right back to it. That kind of sums up a lot of what type of person he is. He’s always busting his butt and training really hard.”
The fruits of Matthews’ labor are paying off in spectacular fashion through the first half of this season. If Matthews wins the NFL sacks title — his 10.5 sacks are 1.5 more than the Giants’ Osi Umenyiora — and the Packers’ defense continues its league-leading pace, then Matthews will be a shoo-in to win the NFL’s defensive player of the year award.
And, if he finishes with a flourish and the Packers end the regular season with homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, Matthews might even garner consideration for NFL MVP honors. Only two defensive players have won the award in its 53-year history: Minnesota defensive tackle Alan Page in 1971 and, in a worthy comparison, Giants outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986.
Twenty-four years ago, Taylor led the NFL with 20.5 sacks and was the star defender for a team that finished second in the league in points allowed en route to a league-best 14-2 record and, eventually, a victory over Denver in the Super Bowl.
This year, Matthews is the star defender for a team that leads the league in points allowed and is right in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt, just one game behind Atlanta’s NFC-best 7-2.
“There’s a lot of football to be played,” Matthews said, shrugging off the question as best he could following last Sunday’s 45-7 victory over Dallas. “There’s some great and talented athletes out there. I don’t know where I fit in. I’ll let you guys handle that. Like I said from Day 1, I’m just going to keep playing the way I know how, and if that’s getting sacks, interceptions and making tackles, then so be it. We’re getting a little premature, but whatever awards you want to throw my way, then I’ll be more than happy to take.”
Matthews, who had a sack and a pick-six against Dallas, is on pace for 19 sacks. Tim Harris set the team record with 19.5 in 1989.
“It’s fun playing with a guy like that who just has an ability to just go out there and make plays,” last year’s defensive player of the year, Charles Woodson, said after the game. “Me and him do feed off of each other a little bit. We talk before games and during the week about who’s going to be player of the game and that sort of thing. I would guess he edged me today. Yeah, it’s fun, and we feed off of each other out there on the field.”
Matthews had 10 sacks last season, making the NFC Pro Bowl team and finishing third in rookie of the year voting. That only fueled the fire of the player whom the Packers selected with the 26th pick of the first round — a selection acquired when they traded their second-rounder and two third-round choices to New England.
Matthews worked with Capretta into mid-March — doing high-intensity, minimal-rest training for about an hour-and-a-half a day — before returning late in the summer for his final push to training camp. In between, Matthews discovered mixed martial arts-style training from a few of his football friends — including Packers teammate Ryan Grant — and Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer while at the Pro Bowl.
Clay Matthews' 62-yard touchdown vs. Dallas.
Morry Gash/AP Images
“It was bare knuckles, brass fighting, chains,” joked Matthews in the magazine story written by Matt Tevsh. “No, I really enjoyed it. It was a great break from the traditional working out with throwing iron on your back and pushing weights. It was something that was new and different. I think more so than anything, obviously physically it helped me out tremendously, especially with my conditioning, but more so mentally. It’s really about bringing the fight to them. Especially in regard to that sport, it’s such a brutal sport. And in football, you have about 30 seconds off between each play to think about what just happened, run/pass, read the tackle … there’s so many keys. But in this, if you get knocked down, the guy’s pushing you within 3 seconds. You’re constantly moving, constantly going, constantly exerting on you. So, I felt coming into (training) camp I was in the greatest shape of my life.”
That showed in the first two games, when Matthews had three-sack performances in wins over Philadelphia and Buffalo. In the Packers’ six wins, he’s had at least one sack in five of them. In the game he didn’t, against Minnesota, he drew a 15-yard face-mask penalty that knocked the Vikings back to the 35-yard line in the final moments of the game.
“I think I’ve always had it,” said Matthews, whose father, Clay, was a standout linebacker for Cleveland and Atlanta from 1978 through 1996. “Green Bay’s given me a great opportunity to succeed. I’d like to continue that same play and that kind of relentless attitude for each and every game. I want to be one of the best. I want to be great. That’s how I feel about the game. I don’t want to be just another guy. I want to be something special in this league.”
He’s well on his way, with a career that took off like a rocket during the Packers’ trip to Minnesota last year. It was there that Matthews — making his first NFL start — stole the ball from Adrian Peterson and ran it back for a 42-yard touchdown.
The Packers return to Minnesota on Sunday, with Matthews having anything but a sophomore slump. His 20.5 sacks top the list over the last season-and-a-half, a testament to genes, intelligence and an unparalleled work ethic that have made him arguably the NFL’s most feared defender.
“I always strive for goals that I go for each and every year,” Matthews said after all but one reporter and all of his teammates had departed after the game. “I think last year, it was to hit that double-digit sacks. That seems like a universal goal for pass rushers. I thought maybe I could make a Pro Bowl. This year, it was to step that up, it was to improve every regard: get more sacks, make more plays and be more of a leader on this team.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.
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